Video games could help you keep your eye on the ball. The games and screen time in general are big factors in our increasingly sedentary lifestyles and rising levels of obesity. But they can also keep aging brains sharp and train the eyes to see better.

Playing a video game on an iPad or computer can improve visual acuity in adults with normal vision, and may be useful for enhancing the vision of those with conditions such as amblyopia (or lazy eye), macular degeneration, and cataracts, according to investigators at the University of California, Riverside.

Major League Improvements

Researchers trained 19 members of the school’s baseball team on an interactive video game called Ultimeyes. Players who participated in the video game sessions had significant improvements in their visual acuity — sharpness of vision — compared to those in the untrained group.

The athletes who practiced the video game were able to see the ball better. They had greater peripheral vision, were better able to see things that were further away and distinguish among objects in dimmer light. They also said that their eyes felt stronger and didn’t tire as much.

The improvements showed up in performance on the field, too. Analyzing the team's statistics in a manner similar to that made famous by Oakland A's general manager, Billy Beane and described in the book Moneyball, researchers found that players struck out 4.4 percent less and hit 41 more runs than the untrained group. The result was four or five more wins in the 2013 season.

Players in the trained group showed greater-than-expected improvements in their game, striking out 4.4 percent less and hitting 41 more runs.

This is the first study to show that repetitive exposure to stimuli such as those in a video game can create changes in the adult brain that improve vision in people with normal eyesight, Aaron Seitz, corresponding author on the study and an associate professor of psychology at UC Riverside, told TheDoctor.

Earlier studies of this sort of perceptual learning tended to be very specific, for example, learning to better discriminate some stimulus that is in the upper left hand corner of the computer screen, and therefore not very applicable to daily life.

In this study, though, researchers took what was known about visual stimulus plasticity, and translated it to a benefit for their subjects’ chosen daily activities, in this case baseball. It seems likely major league players and their managers will take notice.

Seitz and his team plan to train more players and do additional assessments, so they can get a better understanding of exactly which types of visual fields change. They hope to find clear relationships between those changes and on-field performance.

Eventually, the researchers expect to design more effective video games that would lead to even bigger benefits.

Helping Lazy Eyes Grow Stronger

The video game training may well help others. With a grant from the National Eye Institute, Seitz will use the same techniques to study people with low vision, such as those with amblyopia (lazy eye) . The researchers hope that the training program will make the lazy eye more competitive so that it will work better with the dominant eye.

Other trials are planned to teach the brain to compensate for some of the changes that are occurring in the retina for those with age-related macular degeneration. Similar work could be done for those with glaucoma, and to help people who have had cataract surgery adjust to their improved vision.

Seitz says he is currently in the late stages of developing a game to improve memory function, testing it on seniors and in kids with ADHD.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology. A video about the research is available here.